Bill Fontana and Sounds That Beg to Be Seen

The sonic sculptor is a composer in the most fundamental sense of the word, and his newest work at Fort Mason makes use of the entire Bay.

Bill Fontana. Photo by Stuart Davidson. Courtesy of Bill Fontana.

First and foremost, Bill Fontana describes himself as a “composer.” It’s true, except Fontana doesn’t do traditional scores. He’s not like J.S. Bach or Antonio Vivaldi or even Philip Glass, whose sheet music you can buy and download and perform on your own.

Nope. Fontana is a composer in the original Latin sense of the word, which means “to put together.” He amalgamates sounds that he finds in plants, sand, bridges, buildings, and other places that aren’t usually sources of music, and he plays them back to people — often in a “live performance” that reveals the artful sounds that lurk everywhere and which we could find if we only knew better.

Fontana makes people know better. In 2006, for example, he put listening devices called accelerometers throughout London’s Millennium Footbridge and brought out the structure’s constant sounds — the artful sonic mix that occurs as people step across the bridge, the wind hits its beams, and the bridge’s steel supports vibrate with motion. The Tate Modern, where art-goers could hear Fontana’s orchestration, titled the work “Bill Fontana: Harmonic Bridge.” If you listen today to a recorded version, it sounds like a purposeful, otherworldly medley of voice, vibration, and music — as if you were inside the bridge and taking an ecstatic trip into some kind of one-of-a-kind cosmos.

Fontana, who lives in San Francisco, has been doing projects like “Harmonic Bridge” for some 40 years. And the San Francisco Art Institute has brought back one of Fontana’s early works, Landscape Sculpture with Foghorns, to its original 1981 location on the outside eastern wall of Pier 2, whose building is now part of the school’s new Fort Mason campus. In its galleries, “Bill Fontana: Landscape Sculpture with Foghorns” features a mix of Fontana’s other projects as well. So the exhibit is an overview of past and present, a study of his working ways and the curiosity that drives him to create what he calls “sound sculpture,” which can also include video feeds.

Video still, Bill Fontana, Resonant Silences (Southern facing bell, MetLife Tower, New York), 2015. Courtesy of Bill Fontana.

“I spend so much time on a structure studying it. It’s an organic process,” Fontana tells SF Weekly in a phone interview from Lisbon, where he has a work at the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology that spotlights the Portuguese capital’s 25th of April Bridge. “The sounds I work with are very evocative sounds. They’re sounds that are begging to be seen.”

For Landscape Sculpture with Foghorns, Fontana placed microphones at eight different locations — in Lincoln Park, China Beach, Point Lobos, Fort Point, the Yacht Harbor in San Francisco, Point Stuart and Point Blunt on Angel Island, and on Treasure Island — which captured the sounds of the foghorns anchored on the Golden Gate Bridge and other Bay Area locations. Because of their respective distances, the microphones picked up the foghorns’ sounds at slightly different times. The microphones then relayed the sounds — which included rolling and crashing waves — on special telephone lines to eight different loudspeakers at Pier 2. All day and night, Landscape Sculpture with Foghorns performed for people at Pier 2, with one art-goer telling NPR in 1981 that the work was like a “symphony,” and another saying it was “meditative, because the sounds are so low. But then you hear a bird fly across or maybe a boat go across and it jars all that sound.”

That spontaneous mix of sounds is what Fontana was after, since he wanted people to “hear the whole landscape,” he said in 1981. The new iteration of Landscape Sculpture with Foghorns is a digitally remastered version that Fontana says will meld with the current sounds at Pier 2 — whether it’s seagulls, seals, waves, or something else.

“That was an important, groundbreaking piece for me to make,” says Fontana, whose 1981 work was part of a festival called New Music America and whose new iteration will be up through spring 2019. “Ever since I started living in San Francisco, I was fascinated by the foghorns — by the idea that, as a sound, they travel pretty long distances. … and generate natural acoustic delays.” 

Fontana is generally recognized as one of the world’s most important sound artists. SFMOMA gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2009, and his fellowships have included those from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Fontana has taught at such prominent institutions as the Sorbonne in Paris, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and NYU Abu Dhabi, and this year he’s a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he previously taught. He studied music formally in college — which was when he realized that traditional composition wasn’t compelling for him.

“I was a part-time composition student at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and I often found myself in situations where I was trying to create music and write music, and I had this hyper focus,” Fontana says. “And then, in the pauses and silences, this hyper focus would just focus on the ambient sounds where I was. I started to get more and more interested in those ambient sounds than what I was trying to make.”

Fontana’s new San Francisco Art Institute exhibit features several projects with large, well-known bells that reveal a hidden musical side of these giant objects when they’re not officially ringing. In Kyoto, Japan, Fontana used sensors to record centuries-old Buddhist temple bells that were constantly droning — vibrating with movement that even surprised the monks who were always around them. In New York, Fontana recorded a bell atop the Metropolitan Life Tower, which is also alive with sounds that aren’t readily perceptible under normal circumstances.

“Sound that you hear with your ears is a vibration,” says Fontana, whose gallery works at the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture are on view until April 22. “Vibration, like energy, also exists in materials, and an object like a bell has a whole series of resonant frequencies because of the shape and size of the material. If you ever take two identical tuning forks — if you strike one, the other one starts to vibrate. If you think of all these frequencies that an object like a bell has, and it’s surrounded by noise that has all kinds of different frequencies, some of the frequencies in that noise will [connect with] the overall structure of the bell, so those frequencies enter the material of the bell and excite it. You can’t hear that if you stand outside next to the bell. But if you place the accelerometer on the bell, you can enter the material and hear it. So the bell is, constantly within itself, reacting to the noise around it.”

With many of his projects, Fontana is like the shadow side of the artist Christo, who’s famous for wrapping structures and landscapes with fabric and other materials. Fontana wraps them in noise instead — as he did a few years ago at England’s Imperial War Museum North, in a project called Vertical Echoes, where he orchestrated recorded sounds of birds and movement from vintage aircraft. Fontana has worked on nearly every structure that’s piqued his interest, including the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge. There’s one place, though, that Fontana still dreams about — still imagines that he can work with if only he had the resources that, say, Elon Musk has.

“I want to go into outer space,” Fontana says. “And I want to embed accelerometers in the surface of the moon. And I want to have them simultaneously on the sunny side and the dark side, because the temperatures would be very different.”

Jonathan Curiel has covered art and culture for SF Weekly since 2010.

“Bill Fontana: Landscape Sculpture with Foghorns,” gallery exhibit through April 22, Foghorns work through Spring 2019, at the San Francisco Art Institute’s Fort Mason Campus, Pier 2, Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture, Free;

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